In Praise of Dirty Capitalism

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I remember her funeral better than most: As a Catholic from an old Irish and German family, funerals were part of the yearly process as much as fish Fridays and allergies to the Advent wreath, but my grandmother’s funeral isn’t hued with the same cyclical colors as all the rest, black and grey suits, funeral-home navy furniture and poorly arranged flowers from people I’d never even heard of.

Her coffin was a masterpiece in bronze and copper, miniature Pietàs on each corner, and a lid so polished when I stared at it, I had the eerie moment of looking at myself in a casket; the coffin shone too brightly graveside, as we read the 23rd Psalm and lowered her into the Earth. True to her wishes, we remained there until she was fully buried, and watched as a pile of dirt snuffed out the coffin’s light as quickly as a fall had snuffed out her own. It seemed an odd custom, a holdover from a time when the coffin would be lowered, the mourners move on, and then the coffin raised, body dumped, and coffin resold; as she lay dying, my grandmother would wildly grip my hand and tell me how she saw an undertaker turn in a pound of gold fillings for money at a local jeweler, her other hand covering her mouth–obscuring the details of her story–for fear of post-mortem desecration. I thought those times had passed.

But they have not; you need but pass by a newsstand in Chicago to see the terrifying news: Four people are being charged with felony human dismemberment and desecration of a burial site for allegedly exhuming gravesites to resell the plots. All are employees at a Cook County graveyard in Alsip, IL, Burr Oak Cemetery—the entire 150-acre crime scene is swamped by the grief-ridden families of the buried adults and residents of the crassly named “Babyland.” The national media is riddled with pictures like this one, showing a floor covered in headstones, each one helter-skelter and carelessly tossed, the clods of dirt still clinging to them. Every news anchor excoriates the intrepid entrepreneurs for disturbing the dead, causing the city and now the FBI to focus hundreds of hours in dealing with the queries of the over 6,000 families concerned with the whereabouts of their dearly departed, including the family that failed to find 10 of their buried relatives. In the clip reel, Cook County Sheriff Thomas J. Dart is quoted often, “We don’t have an end in sight.”

The gore from this particular situation aside, all burial ritual is not for the dead, rather it is for the living. It is the central part of the grieving process, the finality of saying good-bye by removing the person from active parts of society and relegating them to a bucolic field; it separates the person from the context of the life they led, and the act that is meant to honor the dead in memoriam is instead an act profoundly of forgetting. In a perfect world, parents are buried by mourning children, who mourn and remember until their children bury them, until those children’s children grow old and are buried too; after three and four generations, the lives which were so richly important become family heirlooms, great-great Grandma Montaigne’s fruit painting, great-great-great Grandpa von Dornenbürg’s Kiste he brought with him from Germany, until the items are sold off and the stories become irrelevant. As Henry Austin Dobson quipped, “Time goes, you say? Ah no! / Alas, Time stays, we go,” and within the span of a few generations, no one knows the names in the family necrology, and the grieving process that was sealed graveside has been consummated.

What Carolyn Towns, Keith Nicks, Terrance Knicks, and Maurice Daley are accused of doing was not wrong, merely incorrect and foolhardy. I’m not critiquing their business plan, but their execution. By violating the grieving process of the living, they opened themselves to eventual exposure; had they focused their entrepreneurial efforts on the long-dead, they would have been part of a noble process of grave reclamation common in England and Germany, where space is a premium and those dead for fifty years are liable to be exhumed and cremated. In a society that cremates a projected 36% of the dead in 2010, particularly considering cremation is the perfect form of dismemberment, any American is likely to desecrate a burial site when they camp in a beautiful stretch of woods or sail on Lake Michigan. As a society, we say that it is vile, wrong, and wholly improper for these four to have done this, while we travel to museums full of artifacts from tombs; we tour through the Roman catacombs and extinguish our cigarettes on the floor, never thinking as we hypocritically throw these four into the pillory.

When I die, from liver failure, lung cancer, or the heart disease that plagues the men of a certain age in my family, and those I’ve left behind have passed too, all that will remain of my grandmother is a few dusty photographs and the art she spent her life crafting; they won’t know about her caustic wit, how I would sit by her desk while we did crosswords, or how she made the very finest peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—and frankly, if what I pass down to them of her cannot communicate to them how positively marvelous she was, a rotten body in a plot they likely won’t want or be able to find will fail too.

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